The Social Nervous System: Positing a New Branch of the ANS

Dr. Bill Koch Interviews Dr. Jeff Rockwell

Originally published in The American Chiropractor December 2015

I have known Dr. Jeff Rockwell for several years and have written about him in this magazine and in my book, Conversations with Chiropractic Technique Masters. I have studied his work and use many of his technique protocols in my own practice. A pioneer in the use of instrumentation in neuromuscular therapy, Dr. Rockwell is a passionate advocate for blending neuroscience, contemporary adjusting strategies and vitalistic chiropractic philosophy. He has developed his own unique treatment protocols, authored several books, instruction manuals and DVDs and has taught over 400 seminars. He currently practices in Los Gatos, California and is director of The Institute of Manual Neuroscience.

Dr. Jeff Rockwell

Dr. Jeff Rockwell

In this interview Dr. Jeff Rockwell and I discuss recent developments and current thinking in the field of neuroscience.

What we know of the basic anatomy and physiology of the nervous system is well established. Neuroscience now seeks to understand the functional changes and adaptation that has become necessary to deal with the differences between a primitive survival environment and our complex social environment. Employing our hard wired sympathetic autonomic response of fight/flight is seldom appropriate in most of the stressful situations we encounter in modern life. This has necessitated the development of a functional social branch of the autonomic nervous system that has modified and moderated our stress reactions to a level more appropriate to modern social situations.

KOCH: Jeff, the last time I interviewed you for TAC you talked about your interest in the neuroscience behind chiropractic. With all the new research in the field, I thought it was time to talk to you again and get an update on your current thinking. Has anything new captured your interest?

ROCKWELL: As a matter of fact, Bill, something “old” has grabbed my attention. I am still as passionate as ever about the neuroscience behind the subluxation and its correction, but I am concerned that my patients and students also keenly appreciate the role of philosophy in their lives. I am especially excited about what science has to say these days about our unique philosophy.

KOCH: Have you found that the 33 chiropractic principles have stood the test of time?

ROCKWELL: What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that philosophy, by definition, evolves. It’s like the difference between a “dead” language like Latin or Greek and an ongoing conversation with wisdom itself. Philosophy means the “love of wisdom.” If we love something, we wish for it to evolve to higher levels of expression. No one knew this better than BJ Palmer. Towards the end of his life, he expanded our core principles to a total of 75. He wrote his last 12 books in the last decade of his life. Not only was BJ a revolutionary, but he was also an “evolutionary.”But, yes, to get back to your question, I do feel that the 33 core principles are standing the test of time quite nicely

KOCH: BJ and DD were true visionaries. It took almost a century for science to catch up with them validating two of the most basic concepts that they wrote about in their early books. That healing occurs from above down and inside out is proven to be correct because of the polarity of the spinal cord and peripheral nerves.

The safety pin cycle depicting a direct neuronal connection between individual brain cells and tissue cells was confirmed by the discovery of individual micro nerve filaments making the brain cell/tissue cell connection that BJ described.

ROCKWELL: So much of what has emerged in the sciences, from quantum physics to new biology, was predicted by chiropractic philosophy. We anticipated the mind-body connection decades before anyone else, and were among the first to describe the body’s self-healing properties. Philosophy-based chiropractic preceded the “new” biopsychosocial model of health. Much of what is hot today in science was born out of a series of principles that first appeared on the scene in the early 1900s.

DD Palmer was a very hip and progressive guy. Sometimes he is disdainfully referred to as having been a magnetic healer, when, in fact, magnetic healing was the rage among the elite members of society of his time. He was
street-smart, yet better read than most medical professors of his day.
Many people today, as you know, view chiropractic as a treatment for neck and back pain. There may be a place for that, but our greatness lies, in my opinion, in our interconnected set of core principles that provide us with a way of knowing ourselves and our world in a very deep way.

KOCH: The chiropractic philosophy is vitalistic in every sense of the word. It is a living breathing and dynamic study of the expression of life and health individually and in community. Health is the normal expression of life.
ROCKWELL: Absolutely, Bill. Human beings function in a dynamic state of
holism. What we should be focusing on is not what is wrong with a patient, but on finding and returning them to a state of “normal”.

KOCH: How would one go about finding normal?

ROCKWELL: A couple of ways come to mind. First, “normal” is an expression of health, so we look for and orient to signs of health. The objective of chiropractic care, as I see it at least, is not just to identify and
adjust subluxations, but also to find what is healthy and utilize the biologic fields of health to actively engage a therapeutic process. I believe Network Spinal Analysis has done an excellent job in this area.

Of course, a spine free from subluxation–that is, the perception of separation or lack of connection–is another excellent starting point. The spine is the modulator of perception and consciousness in a human being and we can orient to “normal” by observing the flexibility of one’s control mechanism or autonomic nervous system.

KOCH: Okay, now that’s a mouthful. What exactly do you mean by “flexibility of the autonomic nervous system?”

ROCKWELL: To explain that, I have to briefly discuss the “Polyvagal Theory” which proposes a new way of understanding of the autonomic nervous system.

KOCH: Yes, the work of Dr. Stephen Porges.

ROCKWELL: Right. It uses some recent scientific advances to significantly change the previous accepted view of the ANS. Traditionally the ANS has been described as having two branches, parasympathetic (rest/rebuild) and sympathetic (fight/flight). The Polyvagal Theory, named for the anatomical basis of Porges’ discoveries, changes the picture. Now, the ANS has three branches, not two.

Throughout evolutionary history, survival has been the primary criteria: characteristics that enhance survival are perpetuated in subsequent form and function. In the ANS, the parasympathetic system is the oldest, reflecting the survival needs of a primitive passive feeder.

The sympathetic nervous system is a later development, adding mobilization and a wider range of possible survival responses.

Porges has shown clear evidence of a third, more modern branch of the ANS, with a survival value specific to more sophisticated animals, especially primates. “Social Nervous System” is the proposed term for this third branch of the ANS.

As brain complexity increases, it takes much longer for newborns to become self-sufficient. In humans, many years are necessary before their enhanced survival capabilities are fully operational. Therefore structures evolved to secure safe and nurturing care for this extended time. Certain emotional affects, specifically the love feelings of mother/baby, are part of this survival mechanism.

The “Social Nervous System” exists as a controller over the sympathetic to enable modulation of the more crude “fight or flight” responses. The anatomy of the Social Nervous System consists of tools that bond a newborn to the mother. These include voice, hearing, visual contact and facial expression. Healthy babies feel safe or connected with their caregivers. Betrayal by or alienation from the caregiver feels immediately life-threatening, and justifiably so.

Porges also shows that under stress, the human system tries its newest “equipment” first. If that doesn’t work, older strategies are attempted, and if they don’t work, the oldest resources are employed. Therefore under stress, the human first uses its social/relational tactics, then fight/flight, then immobility to survive.

KOCH: This is very important information because stress is such a dominant factor in the lives of so many of our patients. Understanding the progression of our own and our patients response to stress is of great value to all practicing doctors.

I have had cases in which the patient’s stress was so acute and severe that they went into the immobility reaction to it. It appeared that they were having a seizure or stroke. Had I not recognized it, and quickly figured out how to effectively defuse the situation, the patient would have been hospitalized and subjected to a barrage of expensive and unnecessary medical diagnostics that would have never addressed the underlying stress causing the problem. Helping our colleagues to better understand and deal with the stress they see in their patients would be of great value.

ROCKWELL: Porges describes the use of “portals,” or anatomical components of the ANS which can be physically stimulated. For example, the portal for the parasympathetic, based on anatomy, is the vagus nerve and the upper and lower portions of the spine. For the sympathetic, the muscles of the limbs, and the sympathetic chain along the spine are highlighted. For the Social System, Cranial nerves V, VII, IX, X and XI can be used. My students working with these portals in the past couple of years have found this very promising.

KOCH: I appreciate this introduction to your work in this fascinating new area of neurology. I am sure, based on my own experience working with the cranial nerves and their rehabilitation, that what you are saying is correct.

I believe that the recognition of a social branch of the autonomic nervous system constitutes an important breakthrough in understanding our neuro-physiological responses. It certainly explains the responses that I have seen many times in my patients who were under exceptional stress.

Jeff, do you have any parting thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

ROCKWELL: Yes, I do. First, I want to thank all of the great chiropractors
out there serving their communities with their hands and hearts.

And I would like to finish by asking each of us, if we are not already doing so, to adopt a personal, self-reflective practice and draw upon this level of attention as we provide excellent chiropractic care.
Chiropractic is “consciousness medicine” and our consciousness and intention influences our perceptual abilities and the overall quality of our adjusting. I believe B.J. called it the adjustment with “something extra.”

KOCH: I agree and would add that this is the essence of what is often referred to as the “healing consciousness”. It is the state we are operating in when our intentions and our efforts are focused on the highest good for our patients.

Many traditional chiropractors will resist or be angered by the word medicine being associated with chiropractic, because they equate it with organized AMA/ Big Pharma Medicine that has been the avowed enemy of our profession for more than a century.

I think we should point out that the generic or traditional meaning of the word medicine, as you are using it, is as might be used by native healers whose art is directed at facilitating the body’s innate healing response through natural means.

Thanks, Jeff, for another inspiring and thought provoking interview.

ROCKWELL: Thank you, Bill, for all you do for our profession–not only serving your own patients so well, but getting ideas like these out to our community!

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© copyright 2015 Dr. William H. Koch

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